Can you Save Tigers by Eating More Chocolate? : A critique of consumer philanthropy

The dominant discourse of philanthropy these days (both in the developed and developing world) is one of ‘marketized philanthropy’ or ‘consumption philanthropy,’ that tries to convince us that we can really save tigers by consuming a particular brand of chocolate. While proponents of this view point to the decreasing role of governments, and are calling for increased ‘agency’ on part of both corporates and consumers, this debate is far from over. While certain corporates such as Apple, Starbucks, Dell have certainly done a lot to raise awareness about issues, brought in money and attention to issues that would have languished, if not for their advocacy; there are some perspectives that are often left out in this discourse. The key one being this ‘marketized philanthropy’ becoming hegemonic and shutting out all other discourses, which may perhaps offer us  better alternatives to solving these problems. An example is the Red campaign, which argues that one can prevent AIDS in Africa by buying a particular brand of computers or other consumer products. As consumers “you have the power to make a difference,” claims their website. But is this true, and how did this discourse come to dominate our consciousness? What are the alternatives? This brief article discusses these ideas through using the works of a few critical theorists.

Mark Rosenman points out several problems wit

Photo credit : bloomingsoulswellness.com
Photo credit : bloomingsoulswellness.com

h campaigns such as RED including that they are a cover for corporate avarice. In his article Patina of Philanthropy, he says: “According to the pro-business Conference Board, although the dollar value of corporate contributions to charity increased in the post-Katrina year (the last for which we have data) – including funds generated by cause-related marketing – the percentage of pretax revenue donated to worthy groups and causes actually declined.  Based on their income, corporations are becoming stingier.” He further contends that there is no transparency about how much of this money actually goes to charities. You cannot consume your way to social good he argues, reminding us that sometimes we need to sacrifice for the larger common good, rather than consume more.

Eikenberry and Nickel (2005) argue that this discourse of marketized philanthropy has actually done much more harm than good and there needs to be a close examination of the claims that the proponents of this discourse are making. Using the example of Angelina Jolie, who is an advocate for Africa, they ask: “Is Africa really suffering due to a lack of Angelina Jolies or Bonos (named one of three 2005 “Persons of the Year,” or is the problem more structural, to do with the society, its leaders, governance structures and more? They point out that this media celebration of philanthropists is both affirmative and exclusionary in that this discourse legitimizes the philanthropists and the money that they possess, without putting them through an examination of how they earned it and the system that perpetuates this inequality, in the first place. They contend that consumption philanthropy is not new and is as old as early 20th century, when Great Britain raised money for war relief funds for the South African war through “Patriotic ballads, hymns and songs that were written; provincial bazaars organized; and a large number of military concerts and processions staged.”

What is new, Nickel and Eikenberry argue is the pervasiveness as well as lack of alternatives for civic talk and action. This, they say can be remedied, through a more robust political engagement. They see hope in the social movements such as the civil rights movement, the land reform movement of Cesar Chavez among others.

Nickel and Eikenberry also add that the problem with this media narrative of marketized philanthropy is that it leaves out or excludes those about whom the stories are being told. Jolie seems to be saying, according to the authors : “Do something! But what can you do? Give money? Consumer philanthropic products like me!” They deploy Agger’s (1991) call for “disclosing narrative wherever we find it narrates anew; thus its political practice- in particular a politics of discourse”. By using this, Nickel and Eikenberry argue that capitalism is presented as an unauthored ideology, and it is consumed as one. It goes without questioning, without people stopping or pausing to check the validity of its claims, they say. This follows from Marx, who argued that money transforms the basis of human relations (specific expressions) into alienated relations, or relations based on a quality that is not in itself inherent. (Nickel, 2005, p.7).

While it is commendable that RED has raised millions in fighting AIDS in Africa, the question is whether this could have also been carried out through the channels that exist for this work to occur: the governments, people of Africa themselves. Are we robbing them of their agency and also more importantly, not letting Africans take part in a discourse that we manufacture, create and propagate. The RED website says: “(RED) was created to help provide a sustainable flow of money from the private sector to fight AIDS. We’ve raised over $240 million to date through the sale of (RED) products from iconic companies – like Apple and Starbucks – and from (RED) events. And 100% of that money goes to work on the ground.” Some questions arise from this: How much of this $240 million has gone to the patients, and more importantly, how much have corporates gained in lieu of this ‘charity’ that they did?

Finally, as Nickel and Eikenberry warn “ Consumption philanthropy is not a discourse about change, but a discourse about continued, even increased, consumption.” As Rosenman also reminds us, this focus of businesses solving social problems may actually benefit businesses more: in terms of publicity, new business and audiences than the actual people or charities that were intended to be the beneficiaries. This paradox is a deep one and one that might elicit a lot of cynicism, as it often does.

How might critics of Philanthrocapitalism respond to Bishop and Green and their theory of Philanthrocapitalism? From this quote above and some of the arguments presented earlier, it would seem that they would critique the entire model of capitalism and the ways that it conceptualizes the relationship of man and money. They may perhaps even critique the very basis of campaigns such as RED or the founding philosophy of Corporate Social Responsibility, not for the reason that Libertarians would do – i.e., argue that it is not the purpose of businesses to worry about social issues – but because this theory is fundamentally premised on the assumption that social problems can be solved by throwing more money at them. This, perhaps is the underlying assumption of critical theorists when they criticize business approaches to philanthropy. While you may not agree with it, it is certainly an important perspective that deserves our attention.

1 thought on “Can you Save Tigers by Eating More Chocolate? : A critique of consumer philanthropy”

  1. In discussing CSR, I always like to quote Economist Paul Samuelson (1915 – 2009), “ A large corporation these days not only may engage in social responsibility, it had damn well better try to do so.” One could substitute the words ‘billionaire’ or ‘celebrity’ for ‘large corporation’ in an endeavor to encourage further discourse. Sure, neither Angelina, Brad nor Bono are going to change the world on their own but I am bloody glad they are trying!

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